Thirty years old, college educated, and the son of a doctor, Julian English, the protagonist of John O’Hara’s classic novelAppointment in Samarra, appears to have life going his way. He owns a house on Lantenengo Street, the most prestigious boulevard in all of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. His wife Caroline is “the most attractive of the Lantenengo Street girls” (p. 110). Despite the recent onset of the Great Depression, his Cadillac dealership appears to be holding its own. Even Al Grecco, the small-time hood who runs liquor for the local crime boss Ed Charney, knows it’s true: “Julian English . . . was a high class guy and would be a high class guy in any crowd” (p. 17). As he celebrates Christmas Eve 1930 with the town’s in-crowd at the Lantenengo Country Club, Julian would seem to have every reason to be just as self-satisfied as his socially established clubmates Froggy Ogden and Harry Reilly. But before this evening is over, to his surprise as much as anyone else’s, Julian will have impulsively thrown a drink into Reilly’s face, the first act of Julian’s rapid downward spiral into social disgrace and self-destruction.
Julian himself only dimly grasps the reasons for his suddenly erratic behavior, and everyone around him is shocked and puzzled. Only as author John O’Hara gradually and deftly reveals the conditions of life in English’s outwardly prosperous but inwardly decaying town does the reader begin to understand why Julian feels as though he must act as he does. Desperate for the acceptance that his social circle dispenses only at the price of numbing conformity, but at the same time unwilling to forfeit his individuality, Julian feels trapped. Conscious of the approach of middle age, he fears the attention that both richer and younger men are devoting to his wife. As he wanders from meaningless party to meaningless party, Julian also feels the tightening grip of boredom, and he feels within himself a dull, creeping rot from which the only escapes appear to lie in alcohol and reflexive rebellion. As Julian’s friends scratch their heads and gossip, and as Caroline wonders what is happening to the man she loves, Julian continues almost willfully to unravel, both engaging and repelling the reader’s sympathies at every downward turn. As O’Hara’s taut and gritty narrative nears its shattering climax, one feels sorrow, not only for Julian and his family, but for an American dream turned foul, a society gone blind, and a vision of happiness no longer credible or appealing.
Stark in its language and atmosphere, unerring in its dissections of human character, Appointment in Samarra ranks with the best of Theodore Dreiser in its naturalist depictions of human decline and rivals Sinclair Lewis in its denunciations of small-town egotism and bigotry. Not without reason did the Modern Library choose the book as one of the twenty-five greatest English-language novels of the last century, and not without reason do readers continue to relish its every page.
ABOUT JOHN O’HARA
John O’Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905 and graduated from Niagara Preparatory School in Lewiston, New York. His father’s death and resulting financial hardship prevented him from realizing his dream of attending Yale. O’Hara turned instead to writing, first supporting himself by writing for local newspapers and then moving to New York to pursue a career in fiction. He became an astonishingly prolific writer of short stories, many of them set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a barely disguised fictionalization of Pottsville. O’Hara’s short stories published in The New Yorker alone eventually numbered more than two hundred. His novels also won success, especially when adapted to other media. BUtterfield 8 became an Oscar-winning film, and Pal Joey found a prosperous second life as a Broadway musical. O’Hara received the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick and his début novel, Appointment in Samarra, was named by the Modern Library as one of the twenty-five greatest English-language novels of the twentieth century. He died in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1970.
- The title Appointment in Samarra derives from a story told in the novel’s epigraph, concerning a man who flees from death, little realizing that his appointment with the reaper is set to take place at his destination. How do the title and the epigraph relate to the plot of Appointment in Samarra? Is there a sense of inevitability in the book?
- Some readers have felt as if Julian’s reactions to adversity are too extreme for the circumstances that provoke him. Do you agree? O’Hara biographer Frank MacShane has written that Julian’s dramatic excessiveness is indicative of Julian’s real-life generation, which grew up accustomed to easy circumstances without having earned them and therefore lacked the emotional fortitude to cope with the Great Depression. How might the events of Appointment in Samarra correspond to the thirty-something’s of today?
- Appointment in Samarra was controversial in its time for its open and somewhat graphic treatment of sexuality. How do you respond to O’Hara’s depictions of the sexual motivations and behavior of his characters? Does he deserve praise for his realism or mild censure for his descents into vulgarity?
- Julian’s nickname in the text is “Ju,” a word to which he at times reacts negatively. Though O’Hara himself does not espouse anti-Semitism in the novel, its characters frequently indulge in anti-Jewish bigotry. What parallels might be drawn between Appointment in Samarra and the real life events of the early 1930s impacting Jewish communities in America and around the world?
- In his development of the character of Julian’s wife, Caroline, O’Hara seems to take inordinate interest in her romantic and sexual aspects and to think less about her outside of her relationships with men. Yet he also writes of Caroline, “Upstairs was a girl who was a person.” How well does O’Hara seem to understand Caroline, and does she succeed as a fully rounded character?
- How does O’Hara represent women in general? In what ways does he make them sympathetic? In what ways do they tend to undermine and destroy the men of Gibbsville? Conversely, how do the men undermine and destroy the women?
- O’Hara offers an implied contrast between the English’s marriage, which is a failure, and the Flieglers’ marriage, which succeeds. What are the differences between the two unions, and why do those differences make a difference?
- The pivotal disappointment of O’Hara’s life was not being able to attend Yale University. How, if at all, does this resentment appear to influence his treatment of “college boys” in Appointment in Samarra?
- Discuss the social atmosphere in Gibbsville. What traits do people tend to value? What kinds of bad behavior are tolerated, and what kinds seem impossible to excuse? Why are the pressures to be and act like everyone so intense? Why is it often worse to break the rules than to break the law?
- Why does O’Hara spend so much time developing the relatively minor character of Al Grecco? What dimension is added by Grecco’s noticeable presence?
- Julian English is a Cadillac dealer who meets his ultimate fate in his car. The car one drives is, in this novel, always an expression of status and character. Discuss Appointment in Samarra as a novel of car culture.
- In a narrative technique borrowed from Greek tragedy, O’Hara sometimes chooses not to show directly the moments of catastrophe in his story, opting instead to have them reported by eyewitnesses. What does O’Hara both gain and lose through this stratagem?
- Movie studios did not pick up Appointment in Samarra. It was too raw, too pessimistic, too unromantically sexual. Do you think the book would work better now as a film than in the thirties? Why or why not?
- Imagine yourself as the director of a film version of Appointment in Samarra. Choose a particular scene and explain in detail how you would shoot it, including choices of set design, lighting, and camera angles.